Inside Chernobyl Today. The No. 4 reactor at the Soviet Union's Chernobyl power station exploded April 26, 1986. Last month, Rushworth M. Kidder had a highly unusual `back door' tour of the site, accompanied by senior Soviet engineers who were there during the accident. This is the first of two reports.
THE road to Chernobyl winds flat and narrow across the wide Ukrainian plain. This is farm country, the breadbasket of the Soviet Union. By late March, winter wheat is already sprouting into bright green carpets. In the distance, barn-size haystacks mound against the horizon. Closer to the road, massive feed lots stand ready for cattle. Here and there the fields give way to forests of red pines, their feet set among swampy hummocks or hidden in dusty scrub. Planted in rows and hedged with white birches, they shelter the berries and mushrooms for which the region is famous - or was, until the No. 4 nuclear reactor exploded at Chernobyl April 26, 1986, in the largest radiation disaster in history. Now and then the road, still miles from Chernobyl, runs between twin rows of stocky elms, bisecting villages of squat white houses. Their bright-blue trim, and an occasional red-painted metal roof, provide the only color in a gray-brown landscape. In unkempt yards, stacks of split firewood stand against the sheds. Clothes dry on the lines. Chickens peck along tall board fences. In ditches along the road, grandmothers in kerchiefs burn last year's leaves. Up on the pavement, old men on black bicycles and schoolchildren with satchels are passed by a rumble of heavy vehicles: Army buses, dump trucks, freight lorries, cranes, cement mixers, plying the 158 kilometers (98 miles) from the Ukrainian capital of Kiev to the power plant at Chernobyl.Skip to next paragraph
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Nowadays the road goes nowhere else: There is no through traffic. Thirty kilometers from Chernobyl, at a barrier guarded by uniformed militia, the traffic stops. Passengers leave their ``clean'' vans - authorized to travel through populated areas - and climb into the ``dirty'' ones that operate only inside the 30-kilometer radius of Chernobyl known simply as ``the zone.''
Inside the zone, the landscape looks very much the same. In the villages, flowered curtains still hang in some of the windows. An occasional bucket lies waiting in a dooryard. On a low hillside, a cemetery of faded blue metal crosses nudges up against two wooden picnic tables in a small grove of trees.
Only one thing is missing: people. Three years ago, in a swirl of fright as news of the explosion took nearly 72 hours to trickle out through the closely held information grid of Soviet officialdom, 135,000 inhabitants were whisked from their homes in the zone. They fled so fast that dogs and cats were sometimes abandoned, left to blend with their feral ancestors in the surrounding woods. Villages that had endured for centuries now stand empty, awaiting the slow creep of the bulldozers that will eventually knock them flat and bury their remains. Acre after acre, mile by mile, the ghost towns stretch into ghost counties, ghost woods, ghost lands. Only along the road does humanity still move. Small red signs, bearing the familiar circular seal denoting a radiation danger, are posted frequently along the road to warn passers-by away from the woods.
Even now, three years after a three-mile-high cloud of radioactive cesium 137 and iodine 131 spread toward Europe and gradually dissipated around the world, the road is washed daily by tank trucks with nozzles under their front bumpers. On the pavement, radiation is low. In the woods, the levels rise to 1 or 2 milliroentgens per hour. A person living there for a year would receive three times the allowable dose.
``It's a very sad picture,'' says Viktor Golubyov, the chief engineer and manager of Spetsatom, the Chernobyl-based emergency response team. Created in March 1988, Spetsatom is designed to deal with nuclear accidents - and with such natural disasters as last December's earthquake in Armenia. As he speaks, our mustard-yellow van whizzes past a vast junkyard of trucks and vans that, from constant close exposure to radiation, have grown too ``hot'' (radioactive) to use and are awaiting burial. He's seen it hundreds of times before. It still moves him.